Luigi Ghirri

Rondanini Gallery

In 1969, from a distance of several thousand miles, a photograph was taken of the planet Earth. We saw its spherical form isolated against the blackness of outer space and we were amazed. Luigi Ghirri, an Italian draftsman working in his home town Modena, saw it and thought: “This is a picture which contains all pictures ever taken, a picture of everything we see and are, and yet a picture which shows us nothing.” Ghirri was challenged by the image, and for more than ten years now he has explored the world from his microcosmic viewfinder.

Ghirri’s work, which he calls a photography of hieroglyphics, is analytical and semiological. His interest is in deciphering the signs of everyday life, and is indebted to the work of Walker Evans and of Paul Strand. In addition, his photographs draw from different but related sources in art—from Duchamp, in Ghirri’s use of decontextualized objets trouvés, to Magritte, in his overlapping planes, to Rauschenberg and Wesselmann, in his taste for kitsch and advertising imagery. But these artistic influences inform only the foundations of Ghirri’s work. Those elements he has borrowed from Dada, Surrealism and Pop he has incorporated into a vision that is based on the ambiguities and paradoxes inherent in photography. One might call him a conceptual photographer. His work is consistently premeditated, and reads like a witty, eclectic manifesto on the perils of photographic objectivity, and on the question of illusion versus reality.

In his “Kodachrome” group, Ghirri considers the urban landscape as if it were one continuous and complex montage: life-sized cardboard cutouts, billboards whose edges blend harmoniously into the world beyond, window displays that juxtapose utopian ideals with vapid realities. The series ends with a tiny fragment of a newspaper image staring up from the blank ground it lies on—Ghirri’s triumphant reversal of NASA’s macrocosmic world view.

Ghirri takes the title of his series “Luncheon on the Grass” from Edouard Manet’s painting, which was iconographically inspired by Raphael’s Judgment of Paris, in its turn based on the Villa Medici River Gods. He thus adds another link to this historical chain that documents the rapport between people and nature, a chain that proceeds from the Roman view of the total subjection of the human race, to their perfect integration in the Renaissance, to their scientific detachment and superiority at the turn of the century, and finally to their contemporary estrangement. People are present here only symbolically—in the iron fence that imprisons the rose, in the empty lawn chairs, in the sterile potted plants and in the artificial birds that decorate house fronts—in our artificial illusions of nature.

Ghirri’s most recent series, called “Still Life,” develops his theme in a quieter, more profound way. He has photographed works of art, primarily the sort of cheap 19th-century oil paintings one finds at flea markets. Signs of the physical world, the living present, are only hinted at in these photographs, in streaks of sunlight, in the shadow of the frame of a painting falling on the canvas or in an object that lies casually on the painting’s surface. A portrait of a beautiful, dark-haired woman in black is photographed from the side, so that she appears to be lying on her back. A bowler hat, partially cut-off by the top edge of the photograph, rests on the portrait and obscures a part of her body; the curve of the hat’s brim meets the curve of her cheek. The photograph’s predominant blue tone, and the painting’s faded colors, make the woman appear to be under water, with the hat floating on its surface. Still life or nature morte? One senses something of the mystery of time—of a past that is ever present, of the present that inevitably alters the past. Ghirri has sought to reveal the secrets in a world of signs and symbols. “My concern is to see clearly,” he says.

George Tatge